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Why the Garissa attack was to be expected

By Stephen Buchanan-Clarke

On April 2 2015, Kenya again bore witness to the horrors of another well-planned and executed Al-Shabab-led terrorist attack. Like a recurring Westgate nightmare, five gunmen stormed Garissa University College, separated Christians from Muslims, and executed 150 students, after making many lay face down on their beds. For a brief moment Al-Shabab reminded the world that Isis does not have a monopoly on savagery in the marketplace of extremism.

If Kenya’s response to Westgate was the precedent in their approach to combating Islamic extremism, and their early actions post-Garissa are anything to go by, then it is only a matter of time until news of another attack punctuates our headlines and is skimmed by a public increasingly losing the energy to comprehend the dynamics and drivers of a seemingly endless string of terror attacks.

The Kenyan government is either unable or unwilling to learn from its past mistakes in combating the country’s growing problem of religious extremism. Its current mode of thinking around the issue is both antiquated and counter-productive. Ignored by President Uhuru Kenyatta, there is an increasing wealth of in-depth qualitative research published, where members of Al-Shabab have been interviewed at length on their motivations for joining the organisation, along with established empirical evidence which shows that state-sponsored violence disproportionally used against vulnerable communities to be highly correlative in the majority of countries which experience high levels of terrorist attacks.

For example, in a 2013 study by Anneli Botha, where 110 members associated with Al-Shabab and the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) were interviewed, it was found that overwhelmingly the perception that the government was unfairly imposing collective punishment on Muslim immigrants to be a primary motivating factor in recruitment. The MRC frequently cites structural and political disenfranchisement as their reason for wanting to succeed from Kenya.

Recent research, like the above mentioned, has generated new counter-terrorism approaches that favour a surgical use of force in conjunction with broader social strategies to reconcile alienated communities and address key grievances in a manner that keeps conflicted parties in dialogue rather than leaving violence alone as the only recourse of action. Kenya has decided to take another direction.

Since the September 2013 Westgate Mall attack, there has been a wholesale targeting of an already vulnerable and marginalised Somali immigrant community. Amnesty International reported that Operation Uslama Watch, developed by the government as a counter-terrorism programme following two Al-Shabab March attacks, led to thousands of arrests, ill-treatment, forcible relocations and unlawful expulsions of Somalia immigrants. And in 2011, Kenya used the kidnapping of two women working for Medecins Sans Frontieres as an excuse to launch Operation Linda Nchi which saw Kenyan military forces cross into Somalia and, usually brutally, clear border towns of Al-Shabab fighters.

Following the Garissa university attack, the Kenyan government seems to be falling back on the same heavy-handed approach. Last week, Deputy President William Ruto issued a bombastic statement to the United Nations to shut down the Dadaab Refugee Camp and resettle its inhabitants within three months or have Kenya shut it down itself — describing the camp as a breeding ground for terrorists. Dadaab is the world’s biggest refugee camp with estimates of its population to be somewhere north of 350 000. Most of the camp’s inhabitants are Somali refugees forced to flee their homes as a result of the chronic violence and poverty that has characterized the notorious failed state. Many have been living in Dadaab for well over a decade. If Ruto thinks Dadaab generates terrorism what does he imagine unfairly profiling and forcibly relocating its 350 000, mostly Muslim, mostly desperately poor and unemployed inhabitants will do?

Unfortunately, this is not the first absurd step taken by the Kenyan government to address the issue. Last month they proposed building a wall on the Lamu border with Somalia as a way of stopping the flow of terrorists into the country. This is such a misguided understanding of how religious extremism spreads in the digital age as to almost be comical. It also perfectly epitomises the government’s belief that they are simply the unlucky proxy in a war which is really between Israel and Palestine, the denial that any local grievances among Kenyan Muslims could contribute towards creating the conditions whereby Al-Shabab can successfully recruit, or that a growing percentage of Al-Shabab’s ranks are now actually made up of Kenyans.

Intelligent responses to counter-terrorism are pain-staking and long-term. Unlike a military operation there is no clear victor. It does not afford a government the headlines which show it to be “winning”. The only evidence that they are working will be a slow tapering off of terrorist activity and support for Islamic fundamentalism — something that is harder to quantify than arrests and body counts.

Anger and disgust directed at those Al-Shabab militants who killed the students of Garissa university is more than justifiable. But a share of it also needs to be directed at Kenyatta and his administration for their recklessly belligerent approach to combating the problem of religious extremism, which has up until now only perpetuated social cleavages served to create the disenchanted and frustrated classes from which Al-Shabab can recruit and radicalise.

Stephen Buchanan-Clarke works in the Justice and Reconciliation in Africa Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation based in Cape Town, He is completing his master’s thesis in conflict transformation with the University of KwaZulu-Natal, with a focus on counterterrorism strategies in Africa. Follow him on Twitter @stephen_bclarke


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  1. grant grant 23 April 2015

    Why is it that we look so hard at the Kenyan government to find the blame for these incidents and we seldom consider the fact that Al Shabaab represents to very worst we have on offer in the world today. They are violent religious extremists that want to form the world around their archaic and brutal beliefs. They are willing to execute innocent people based on their religion and this is a fight that they started in Somalia and spilled over into Kenya drawing in the Kenyan military. In what possible way is this the Kenyan governments fault? They are responding to an ideology that is in conflict with their own fledgling, secular democratic regime. If anything they need to tighten up on security and take Al Shabaab on. This is not the time for Chamberlain style appeasement. These are not people that want to negotiate. They are not progressive liberal democratic Somalis fighting for their right to freedom. These are ideologically indoctrinated Islamic warriors that are fighting to define a Caliphate and anyone who stands outside of their ideology is considered unclean and they feel nothing to execute those people. They will take any weakness and exploit it. Al Qaeda has been terminated as an organisation because they were contained and decimated, not because they were enlisted into a social upliftment program.

    I agree that as one prong of the response it is prudent to reach out to the Somali community within Kenya to make sure that they are not aligned and that they are not embittered. I would also suggest that Kenyan intelligence infiltrate this community to gather intelligence and to make sure that Al Shabaab do not have a hold there.

    This is foremost an ideological battle and secondly it is a social outreach. If we lose sight of that fact, Al Shabaab will gain ground at no cost. This does not benefit anyone, least of all the Kenyans.

  2. Rory Short Rory Short 23 April 2015

    Terrorists are human beings and remain human beings even after they become terrorists. Terrorism is a response to what those who become terrorists view as an untenable situation in their lives. It can only be sorted out by reforming the untenable situation.

  3. Brian Green Brian Green 27 April 2015

    Blaming the victim is the leftist response to everything.

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